Pointing to a Better Time than Ours

Blogging the Ives Vocal Marathon, day three:

The conference’s most surprising event was the Ivesian Sunday morning service at South Congregational Church, the Rev. Marybeth Marshall, minister, and with conference organizer Neely Bruce at the organ. The unsuspecting local congregation was joined by a dozen or more musicological academics, some of whom hadn’t been to church in, mm, a long time, but we restrained our ethnomusicological curiosity and struggled to blend in. At appropriate points in the service Neely led the choir and soloists in Ives’s “O Have Mercy, Lord, on Me,”  Psalm 42, “Rock of Ages,” “The Collection,” and “Serenity,” and also worked “Serenity”‘s repeating chords into his organ improv. No mere academic panel could have been as enlightening as hearing Ives’s liturgical music in its natural habitat: one had to imagine the possible world that could have resulted had Ives not freaked out from his positive 1902 reviews for The Celestial Country, kept his organ job, and become a successful church musician instead of veering into the insurance business. After such superb performances all weekend, hearing an amateur choir sing “Serenity” and “The Collection” was one of those “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it” moments, gratifying in its homespun sincerity but an acquired taste nonetheless. It called to mind John Bell, the stone-mason of whose raucous singing Ives’s father remarked, “Don’t pay to much attention to the sounds – for if you do, you may miss the music. You won’t get a wild, heroic ride to heaven on pretty little sounds” [Memos, p. 132]. Interestingly, Bill Brooks made exactly the same comment after I sang a few Ives phrases in my keynote address. And one of the hymns Neely scheduled was “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” based on the Whittier poem on which the text of “Serenity” is based:

Drop Thy still dews of quietness, 
Till all our strivings cease; 
Take from our souls the strain and stress, 
And let our ordered lives confess 
The beauty of Thy peace.

I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that the poem was already a hymn, certainly not one the Baptists ever sang, damn them for mediocre taste.

I had spent the early morning hours reading Carol Baron’s Musical Quarterly article “Efforts on Behalf of Democracy by Charles Ives and his Family,” which details the strains in Ives’s thought he drew from the Congregationalist denomination, which broke away from the Massachusetts puritans because they were too theocratic and literal. Moss Ives, the composer’s brother, was a Congregationalist deacon and wrote books and articles about the history of religion in Connecticut, highly relevant to Ives’s Essays Before a Sonata. I haven’t finished Carol’s article, need to savor it slowly. 

The usual examples of Ives’s songs are so often “Majority,” “Paracelsus,” “General William Booth,” and such modernist extravaganzas that we forget what percentage of the bulk of his song output (60%, maybe?) is polite parlor songs. Today, we remembered. “Far from my Heavenly Home” and “A Perfect Day” may be the only Ives pieces I never need to hear again: all the rest are at least perceptibly inspired, if not uniformly interesting. But the climactic final concert made up for any weak moments with a rousing “They Are There” and “Lincoln, the Great Commoner.” It was a truly amazing weekend. I used to write songs, and gave up partly, I suspect, because I never really came up with a song concept distinct from Ives’s – some of Ives’s posthumous songs can be found on my web site. But I’m now tempted to go back and write a few of the songs I’d once envisioned. Many in the audience seemed to consider the marathon a potentially life-changing event.